Non-fiction often gets a bad reputation: Lacking in adventure and escapism. Educating rather than entertaining. Being outright dull. Many denounce its ability to provide anything other than a subjective view of reality and a breakdown of the most current affairs. Some look exclusively to fiction to fulfil their need for escapism, oblivious to the incredible insight they are neglecting in non-fictional works.
As an English Literature student, I am certainly not discounting the value of fiction. I myself am among those who enjoy the allure of escaping harsh realities of inequality and conflict and entering into the imaginative realms of a fictional world. However, after reading considerable numbers of memoirs, biographies and opinion articles in my spare time,
I believe it is time that fiction and non-fiction no longer remain in constant competition.
So why do I believe that non-fiction is worth reading? Well for one, there is something for everyone. Autobiographies and memoirs open readers up to new cultures and explorations through the direct voice of the person experiencing the subject matter. Essays and opinion articles incite readers to partake in thrilling debates alongside intellectuals, developing and enhancing their own points of view. Diaries reveal personal details that are not corrupted by the need to entertain an audience.
Still not entirely convinced (or just don’t know where to start)? Try one of these three books, recommendations that illustrate non-fiction’s inherent and individual value.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009)
Emotional yet empowering, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn have created a manifesto for advancing freedom and global equality. It is both one of subjugation and hope. Behind every tragedy in this book is an empowered woman, who having overcome hardship and oppression, has grasped the opportunity to re-educate and reform her community. Mukhtar Mai, an impoverished woman who was refused an education, kidnapped, arrested and sexually abused, has built a school for girls to reform cultural attitudes about rape in Meerwala, Pakistan. She continued to advocate her release from confinement and inspire her supporters in the face of torture. With one humbling story after another, you are forced to ask yourself what you can do to help these individuals. Kristof shows what gender inequality actually means for real people.
Current news stories may debate enslavement, genital mutilation, and domestic abuse, but many other matters remain ignored. Kristoff and Wudunn expose these long overlooked issues in their non-fiction. One of these issues includes being Fistula, resulting in women living and dying as outcasts, abandoned by their husbands and communities, and forced to live scavenging. Hidden issues like these are part of the reason more work needs to be done, and why non-fiction is essential in illustrating this. The road to equality is a long one, and although it is being ascended day by day through extraordinary work, we must continue to raise awareness and fight. Kristof, through non-fiction, not only directs readers to various organisations to get involved with, but exposes essential issues ignored by mainstream media.
To discover more on this topic (and hear from the voice of women themselves) read: Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale: A Memoir by Rachel Lloyd (2012).
The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice by Zak Ebrahim (2014)
This work is a short but striking plea against fanaticism, calling for greater tolerance and the promotion of peace. Written as an autobiography in language accessible to all, Ebrahim recounts, in intense emotional detail, the traumas of his childhood and his conscious decision to separate himself from the violence engrained within him. No reader can escape this book without feeling a disturbing mix of horror, sorrow and hope. Horror for the torturous abuse that Ebrahim witnessed, daily death threats and stigma of being the son of a convicted terrorist. Sorrow for the hardships of his mother and himself. Yet, ultimately, hope: that other children suffering can similarly overcome the destructive beliefs passed on from the adults surrounding them. This compelling book remains relevant to this day – you can sense the reverberations through the social and political spheres as Ebrahim describes his father’s connection to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
For a similar depiction of resilience read: The Man who Broke into Auschwitz by Denis Avey (2011).
Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy (2015)
Elthahawy’s voice is wonderfully daring and audacious. She remains a woman of conviction and strength, continuing to speak out after being sexually assaulted by Egyptian security forces during a protest. In this biography, she expands on her hard-hitting essay “Why Do They Hate Us?” (2012) to depict the violation of women’s basic human rights and call for progression in society. As her title boldly exclaims, both the headscarf and the hymen act, in her view, as symbols of oppression, the former reinforces women’s subservience and segregation, and the latter a form of control in policing young women’s sexuality. Elthahawy’s book is therefore one of critical importance, opening up the conversation surrounding this controversial topic. Many Middle Eastern Muslim women have condemned western involvement and termed Elthahawy ‘islamophobic’ for attempting to speak on their behalf. This controversy should not discourage you from reading, but instead entice you to challenge your own opinions and preconceptions. Although cultural change is a lengthy process, this does not excuse inaction. We must continue to promote books like this, giving the issue of liberation a platform.
For a more personal journey to freedom read: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park (2015)
Non-fiction ultimately offers readers the opportunity to understand the world as it really is, to unearth real experiences and truly empathise with real people. We may believe that watching the news and listening to an occasional speaker is sufficient. But we are wrong. While the world is at once familiar and known in our increasingly connected world, it still remains distant. Non-fiction forces readers to see beyond their immediate surroundings and delve into parts of civilisation that are unfamiliar to them. Non-fiction, rather than being marginalised from the category of literature, should become essential to it.
If daring enough to confront and even challenge it, non-fiction literature is a new world of writing to explore.